Ultimately, an increasingly narcissistic culture will stop being narcissistic all by itself. We should have realized this long ago; after all, the more obsessed we all are with our own image, the less important to us other people’s images become, the less narcissistic supply there is to be given. The narcissists will turn elsewhere for their narcissistic supply, but where will they turn? None of the other narcissists are interested in doling it out, and those that are are paradoxically less narcissistic since they seem to recognize the reciprocal and mutually beneficial nature of giving people respect.
Lately, I have seen small communities pop up that seem to be inhabited by small groups of narcissists. They take turns reaffirming the same set of principles, and thus any compliment they provide to others is, in effect, a way to gain narcissistic supply out of them. “You said what I said previously. This validates me.” “Oh, you said it, too? I knew I was right all along.” But this sort of thing will be short-lived and mostly self-contained. The more we are all interested mainly in ourselves, the less supply there is to go around, the less validating it is to be a narcissist.
This doesn’t suggest, however, that such a society is “out of the woods.” It is beginning to alarm an increasing number of people that human beings are turning inward for things that a social life used to provide. The Atlantic has a very remarkable recent article about that (H/T Tyler Cowen). Ostensibly, the article explores the mystery of why young people are less interested in sex. I think the author is asking the wrong question. Skin-on-skin is the ultimate social interaction. There is arguably no other thing that human beings do together that requires more communication – assuming they are doing it well. The article gives ample evidence, of course, that young people aren’t doing it well. In example after example, the author reports on many young people who find real-world (“meatspace”) personal interaction to be creepy at worst and awkward at best. Meanwhile, in example after example, these same young people engage in occasional romantic encounters only to be choked, jackhammered, genitally injured, and so on. (Yes. And so on.) What the author, and subsequently Tyler Cowen, focus on is the question of why young people are doing it less, but of course they would be doing it less if everyone were collectively getting worse at doing it at all. No one shies away from an encounter with an expert lover with whom they have already united. Toward the end of the article, the author explores how women are decided en masse to avoid painful and injurious intercourse, in favor of pretty much any other way of passing the time, and one can hardly blame them. Still, throughout time immemorial, human beings have always thought that marriage and family is worth it. Today’s young people are increasingly unaware of what they’re fighting for when it comes to romantic relationships, because they don’t know what romance is, they don’t know what the benefits of a healthy and self-affirming intimate relationship are, and they can’t seem to communicate with each other well enough to find anything that even approximates what they should be looking for.
Elsewhere on the web, you can find the blog of a widely read libertarian woman who uses her romantic life as a metaphor for state oppression. I’m not entirely sure if it’s meant to be taken seriously or humorously, but when I occasionally read it, it only makes me sad. Nearly one-hundred years ago, Franz Kafka made a name for himself describing the horrors of mankind’s relationship to the state, which is both impenetrable (The Castle) and suffocatingly omnipresent (The Trial). Bureaucracy, when you must make a request of it, is thoroughly and impossibly inaccessible. When it wants something of you, however, nothing you say or do can stop it. Imagine how a person must feel whose romantic encounters serve as plausible analogues for, not only either of those interactions with the state, but both of them.
A concerned onlooker might conclude that the woman has been hurt, terribly and often. However, another possibility exists. It could simply be that she is no more capable of communicating with a romantic partner than she is with a faceless bureaucracy. That is, the fault might well be hers. I’m not suggesting that it is her fault, because I have no insight into that. I’m merely a reader weighing all the possibilities.
I’ve written before about society’s transition in art, away from being a performance intended for community consumption, and toward and inward-looking expression of self. That is, when musicians take the stage today (and I’m talking about amateurs learning how to create art), they’re mostly focused on playing their parts. To the extent that they’re interested in the audience at all, it’s mostly for attention-getting reasons. They want adulation and applause. Well, performers have always wanted adulation and applause, but in the past it was more participatory. You played to the audience, and you fed off the audience’s energy. You didn’t just want them to think you were neat, you wanted to be the one who was capable of showing them a good time. You might have been in it for the chicks, but being in it for the chicks meant being the guy who was capable of pleasing the chicks. The metric of success was still very much external to the artist: the chicks decided if you were cool or not. You relied on their assessment, and to the extent that you could do so, you attempted to influence their opinion by tailoring your performance to them.
Today, though, you’re a rock star if you feel like one. You can buy Facebook likes and Instagram followers, and you can even leverage that into a world tour. In the end, nobody cares that he was never famous, because he’s famous now. Mission accomplished. He didn’t become famous by showing people a good time, he became famous by tricking people into believing that he was already famous. The metric of success is no longer the audience. The metric of success is your phone. If your phone says you have tens of thousands of fans, then you do. And let’s be clear about it: This is true even if you’re just using bots and AI apps to force your phone into displaying the numbers. The very idea that you would spend years honing your craft in front of a bunch of chicks (or, more generally, music fans who listen to you and provide you with actual “meatspace” feedback) when you can simply hire “The Russians” to boost your Spotify plays seems so old-fashioned.
This is not a narcissism problem. This is not something borne from the fact that we think too highly of ourselves or are too obsessed with presenting a false image of ourselves. This is rather a short-circuit in the basic wiring of human society. Each of us is supposed to be a node in a several-billion-strong network called the human race. We are supposed to be bound to each other by our interactions, by our participation in a common experience. More and more, our society is not bound by a common experience because people do not share experiences in common. We eat lone, make love alone, perform art alone. We are lonely and alone. We are increasingly incapable of having positive social interaction with each other.
Take close note of who it is that is writing this today. I’m the individualist, the guy who claims that being a strong and well-expressed individual is the key to happiness. When I’m the guy telling you that your society is so uninterested in being a society that it’s starting to crack and crumble, you know it might be time to go make some new friends and do something with them. In meatspace. You don’t have to make love to them, but judging by current trends, it might not be a terrible idea. Just make sure to look them in the eyes while you’re doing it.